“Well, tonight we return in the company of Viv Stanshall to Rawlinson End. This episode, number thirty-seven, is called Cabbage-Looking In Mufti, don’t ask me why. Before that, records from Lee Perry, David Bowie, The Waitresses, 999, Snatch, Bryan Ferry, Culture, The Ramones, Clash, Siouxsie And The Banshees - and The Stranglers.”
My name is Charlie Bread. I’m driving a red Mark 2 Jaguar, I’ve got John Peel on the car stereo, and I’m going to Devon. I work for a major auction house – well, not as major as the two you’ve definitely heard of, Sotheby’s and the other one, but Pring’s is a close third to them – and my job, my particular skill is sniffing out forgeries. Fakes, that sort of thing. And I’m really good at it. So good that I even have a nickname. They call me “the Antiques Whisperer.” Which is a bit silly because I don’t actually whisper to anything, and not all the things I don’t whisper to are antiques, some of them are very modern, but it does convey the essential oddness of what I do.
Other experts in fakes are what you might call very scientific in their approach. They use chemicals, and X-rays, and tiny paint scrapings. They analyse the items scientifically and they’re always sending things away to the laboratory (I don’t know which laboratory or if there’s a whole lot of different ones) for tests. That’s not what I do at all. Admittedly, I do do a bit of research, mostly reading because of the nature of the sort of items I’m called upon to investigate, but I haven’t been in a laboratory since school and what I know about science wouldn’t fill a shot glass. No, what I do is very different indeed.
What I do is I walk around the object. I look at it. I stare at it, quite hard. I might pick it up. I consult my notes, if I have any, and then I just think. All right, once I sniffed an object, and that did get mentioned by people. But it was a paperback book which was supposed to have belonged to Laurence of Arabia and which had been found in a hotel reading room in Jedda where he had apparently left it behind and seventy years later an apparently casual visitor had opened it and seen his name scrawled in it – and it smelled slightly damp. All that time, you see, in an arid climate in a dry room in the middle of a desert city and it was faintly damp. Even the sternest critic would have to agree that something was up with that. And indeed when the book was sent to the laboratory, for tests, they discovered that the tiny mould spores in the centre pages were native to Lincolnshire, a county that Laurence of Arabia had never visited. As my Dad used to say when he beat me at draughts, thus I win.
And that’s what I do. I get an object with a disputed provenance – and I’m always the last resort, like those stupid psychics Scotland Yard get in when they’re Baffled, not that I believe there’s anything psychic about what I do – and I study it – always doing some reading around it, so I’m not completely whistling in the dark – and I see if I can get a feel for it, if there’s some quality about it that’s off, or not right. Sometimes I can’t, and then I just have to throw in the towel and admit that I’m only human like the rest of them. But sometimes I get it right. And sometimes I don’t just get it right, I get it spectacularly right. All boasting apart.
And so here I am, driving along, listening to John Peel on a sunny morning, all because three weeks ago I got a call from Roger Armstrong at Pring’s. Armstrong’s one of those classic public school boys. You know the kind, slept in a dormitory for six years and got cold mash for dinner so he thinks he’s served his time in the misery gulag and now he can drink brandy and tell people what to do for the rest of his life. I’m not bitter, I went to a public school myself, for a while, anyway, but there’s a type, isn’t there? And Armstrong Armstrong is the type. Very useful in an auction house too, as you might imagine. Comes down in his old school tie, lovely voice, picks up a vase and says, “My uncle had one of these. Beautiful piece.” Doesn’t matter if his uncle had one or not or if he’d picked it up in Poundland, any client hearing that is going to go weak at the wallet.
I suppose Armstrong’s my boss, although being freelance it’s hard to say. Technically I could naff off somewhere else tomorrow, but Pring’s pay me nicely to stick around so I do. And after the Laurence of Arabia business, where my suspicions were not only proved right but also saved Pring’s a shedload of money, they’re very keen for me to stick around.
And so, one morning not very long ago, Armstrong called me.
“Bread,” he said, wasting no time or breath on manners or familiarity. “Can you come in this morning?”
“I’ve got a couple of things on, actually,” I said, even though I hadn’t, because that’s what you do. You’re always busy even when you’re not and you always take a day to do your work even when it actually only takes you an hour.
“This is important, Charles,” he said, with the tetchiness that comes from thinking that if you own half the country you therefore own half the people in it.
“Ooh,” I said, camply, because I know he hates anything like that, from Andy Warhol to Are You Being Served, “Do tell.”
“I can’t, not over the phone,” said Armstrong. “Like I said, it’s important.”
Having scraped off the veneer of charm to reveal the craquelure of unpleasant toff underneath, I felt my work was done.
“On my way,” I said.
Armstrong was waiting for me in reception.
“You all right, Roger?” I said. It’s not always wise to wind up toffs – see King John for details – but he’d wound me up, so one nil and thus I won.
He ignored me. He was looking at a large painting on the wall. It was of an imperious-looking young woman with a toy rabbit on her lap. It was both erotically-charged (the woman) and creepy (the rabbit).
“I like it,” I said.
“You would,” said Armstrong. “I think it’s a piece of rubbish. Chocolate box trash of the worst kind.
“But it’s Gus Honeybun,” I said.
“It’s Robert Lenkiewicz, you ignoramus,” said Armstrong. He was in an excellent mood, I could tell.
“I know it’s a Lenkiewicz,” I said. “I’m from Devon, remember. Lenkiewicz was a Plymouth artist. And that - “ I pointed at the rabbit “ – is Gus Honeybun. He was the rabbit who did the birthdays on TSW.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Armstrong.
“The woman is a television presenter called Judy Spiers,” I continued, but Armstrong had got bored of being wrong and was headed for the lift.
We got in. “Judy Spiers did the birthdays with Gus,” I explained, more to annoy Armstrong than to enlighten him. “Lenkiewicz must have been commissioned to paint them.”
“I don’t care,” said Armstrong.
“He embalmed a homeless man and kept him in his front room,” I went on. “Lenkiewicz, that is, not Gus Honeybun.”
Armstrong tried to quell me with a look. I decided he’d suffered enough and stopped talking. It doesn’t do to wind up toffs too much.
The lift doors opened. “This way,” said Armstrong and led the way into a small, very secure room. Inside the room was a table with a light inside it, the kind photographers use for looking at transparencies. On top of the table were a pair of cotton gloves and two pieces of paper. One piece was a sheet of A4 with printed writing and a signature, the other a photocopy of what looked like a page from a notebook.
Armstrong locked the door behind us.
“What’s this then?” I said.
“You’re the antiques whisperer,” he said with more than a touch of sarcasm. “You tell me.”
I put on the gloves and picked up the first piece of paper. It was a letter, dated nineteen days earlier and, whatever it said, was clearly not the focus of Armstrong’s urgency. I put it down again and picked up the photocopy. It was a copy of a piece of lined paper and was covered in a childish, slightly smudged pencil scrawl.
“I’m no expert in graphology,” I said, which I knew would infuriate him, especially if he’d actually got an expert in graphology to look at the page earlier which, judging by the date on the letter and the time elapsed since it was written, he almost certainly had. “But this page was written by a child. Or someone trying to write like a child.”
“Is that it?” said Armstrong. “I could have told you that.”
I ignored this.
“I need to see the actual letter,” I said. “I can’t get much off a photocopy. Do you have anything else to show me?”
Armstrong pushed the letter towards me.
Dear Mr. Armstrong,
I was given your name by Alan Curtis at Pring’s office in Exeter as he said you were the man to speak to concerning modern items of interest (I understand that in this context “modern” means anything less than one hundred years old).
I was clearing out an old chest of drawers in our home, which we have been sole occupants of as a family since 1977, and I came across a cache of old papers. Most were bills relating to the previous occupancy, but the contents of one notebook – from which I have photocopied an extract – reminded me of something. I am sure that from the infant handwriting and familiar prose you will recognize its origin as being an extract from, or even an early draft of, Miss Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters.
In itself, I don’t need to tell you, this is exciting news. Even now, there are many fans of Miss Ashford’s work and The Young Visiters has been continually in print since it was first published. But there is a more significant element to this discovery.
Palmer House is not a famous house and has never been home to the rich and famous. But it does boast one “celebrity” claim – for a few days towards the end of the First World War, JM Barrie was a house guest. (This fact can be authenticated easily via photographs and local newspaper accounts). I am sure the significance of this will not be lost on you.
I am therefore inviting you to peruse this tiny scrap of paper, paying attention not just to the aforementioned misspelt extract or draft, but also to its final, apparently unrelated contents. I am sure that, once you have read and digested those contents, you will wish to be in touch personally.
I handed the letter back to Armstrong. His face was more expectant than an actual pregnant woman.
“Well?” he said.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “I know who JM Barrie is, he wrote Peter Pan. But - “
“Who’s Daisy Ashford?”
He sighed. “I wonder about your education sometimes, Charles.”
I don’t wonder about yours, I thought, you Latin-stained anachronism with your three years at Oxford and your four GCSEs. I smiled pleasingly.
“Enlighten me,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Look it up on the way.”
“On the way?”
“Yes. You’ve – “ and he hesitated. “You might be on to something with the handwriting business, that’s all I’m saying. I can’t commit to anything at this stage, but you need to get down there.”